The iPad for Travelers: Can You Really Leave Your Laptop at Home?

This article originally appeared at

Almost as soon as I startedplanning our trip around the world, my pleasant day-dreams were disrupted by a recurring image: It was a vision of me lugging my laptop for weeks on end like some sort of modern-day Sisyphus.

I’m a writer and a consultant… and I didn’t want to have to stop my work just because I was traveling for an extended period of time. In fact, being able to work while away was a key part of my travel plans — you know… the part of the plan that helped me pay for the trip.

So, I had basically resigned myself to carrying a laptop when *it* was announced.

The Apple iPad Tablet was the answer I had been looking for — and I had one in my hands the day it was released. Add in the proper accessories, and now I could write, email, help clients, run my website, and book my tickets and accommodations on the fly — without adding extra weight and baggage that I would have to carry for weeks on end.

The Plan

Here how I imagined that it would work: At only 1.5 pounds and half-an-inch thick, the iPad would let me stay connected without my having to cart around a bunch of bulky gear. I could slip it into a small bag — the pocket of a jacket if I were so inclined — and use it on the longest of flights with a 10 hour battery life. The iPad Camera Connection Kit would let me upload my JPG or RAW pictures and hi-def MJPEG videos to the iPad and use it as a sort of combination photo wallet, digital picture frame, and web uploader.

For longer writing sessions, I could pair the iPad with a compact and lightweight Apple Wireless Keyboard (which conveniently fit into the pocket of my Cocoon GRID-IT Organizer). Add an Airport Express into the kit for hotels with traditional ethernet connections and a World Travel Adapter Kit and you’ve got yourself one lightweight, powerful setup!

I thought I had it all figured out. Laptop — I’ll see you when I get back, sucka!!!

Oh No.

You may have surmised by that somewhat plodding build-up that there is going to be an “Oh No! I was totally wrong… I can’t leave my laptop after all!” moment at this point in our story.

And you’d be right. So, to spare you the suspense: I ended up taking my Macbook on this trip.

But what may surprise you is that I also took the iPad. Here’s why I think that, at least for me, I made the right decision….

This Sounds Like I Made It Up For A Blog Post… But I Didn’t

I knew I couldn’t solely rely on an iPad when I actually woke up in the middle of the night with a sick feeling in my stomach and a strong premonition that all of my projects would totally fall apart if I left the laptop at home.

On the “Nerd Scale”, waking up to an iPad nightmare is probably less embarrassing to admit than some sort of “I was walking naked through the Akihabara Electronics District in Tokyo dream — but it’s close…

Whatever the cause, all I know is that I about five days before leaving the country, some sort of circuit breaker went off in my head — and I knew that carrying the extra weight of the MacBook was worth my piece of mind.

That’s not to say that the “iPad Travel Plan” wouldn’t be fantastic for many other people. It would.

But every traveler is different… as is every trip. Some people can go weeks without checking email or using the internet. Other people can’t. As someone who is going to be on the road for an indefinite length of time and who makes his living online, I would fall into the latter camp. The computer is my office, my travel agent, my guide-book, and my connection to family and friends back home. If my setup doesn’t work well, it has an impact in any number of areas of my particular trip. Not a big deal if you’re gone for a few days… maybe even a few weeks.

But what about a few months?

Some Things That I Was Worried About (With Updates From The Road)

In the time that I had been preparing the iPad for the trip, I had developed a few concerns about whether this setup would work for me over an extended period of time:

  1. No-Fi. The initial release of iPad’s wireless software seemed a little finicky and the trouble that I occasionally had connecting with older, mixed Wi-Fi networks gave me pause. Since I started traveling, I’ve also noticed that the iPad currently struggles with authenticating at *many* Airport Lounge hotspots and that both my iPhone and my Macbook seem to have greater wireless sensitivity.

    It’s something that I expect will improve as updates roll out but, for now, it’s glitchy. Even after updating to the latest version of iOS, the iPad seems to lag behind both the iPhone and the Macbook in its wireless sensitivity. Is this just me, or are other people noticing this as well?

  2. There’s Almost An App For That.
    Frontier days for a platform are both fun and frustrating. I really like many of the first wave of iPad apps that have been released but, more often than not, I’ve found myself frustrated by my inability to do the same things with an iPad as I can do with a MacBook.For example, I was worried about being able to do some website edits from the iPad until I found an app called Gusto — a very full-featured code editor with a built-in FTP client. Awesome!!! One problem — I can’t actually use it yet because my server requires SFTP connections and that feature is currently hung up on Governmental and Apple approval. Well… maybe I’ll just find another app that does all of that. Oh riiiight — there isn’t one yet.

    And in many cases, the only iPad application for a job right now is actually an iPhone application. They work — but they are usually pretty ugly when blown up to iPad screen resolutions (although I expect this to improve as iOS 4.0 rolls out).

    Plus there’s the expense of buying an assemblage of apps that duplicates your OS X toolkit. Not a big deal for people with basic needs… but it sure added up for me.

  3. Browser Blues.
    HTML5 is The World of Tomorrow… But Flash is The World of Today. As crazy as it seems to me and to Steve Jobs, some websites are just flat-out unusable without Flash. The other night, Lauren and I heard some good things about a hotel — and so we tried to book a stay there from the iPad. Once we realized that the site was unnavigable without Flash, it was back to the laptop. Same with booking a flight on a certain Southeast Asian airline.

    Here’s another one: Yesterday, I heard Lauren muttering to herself while trying to edit an online photo album. “It instructs you to either hold down the Control key for multiple item selections or to draw a rectangle around the area with your mouse. What am I supposed to do here?”, she asked.

    Use the laptop — that’s what.

    I have no doubt that Flash will eventually be replaced by HTML5 or something like it, but I think it’ll hang on for a few more years like some kind of a vampire or, even more frighteningly, like the tradition of websites being designed for IE6 Compatibility. In other words, you’d better be able to deal with it until a new standard drives a wooden stake through its heart.

  4. Keeping A Low Profile.
    You can pull out a Macbook in almost any part of the world without attracting too much attention… not so much with The iPad. Until it becomes more globally available, you’re going to get looks. For people who like to travel with a low profile, it’s a bit of a challenge to use discreetly.

So… Why Am I Happy That I Brought It?

While the iPad might not be ready to completely replace a laptop for someone like me, it does an excellent job in the following ways:

  • Quick Emails and Web Browsing. Fast to turn on and type a note or get a quick bit of info. Immediate Gratification!
  • Elbow Room. Let me tell you — the iPad is also much easier to use while sitting in an Economy airline seat or on a train.
  • Reading E-Books. Instead of carrying a bunch of guide books along, I have them stored digitally in the Amazon Kindle app and in Evernote in some cases. Very handy!
  • Evernote. Much of my travel information and research is stored in Evernote (there will be a post on this soon!). While I feel that the iPhone is the most useful platform to get your information into Evernote — I think the iPad is the clear winner when it comes to consuming that information. When a border guard wants to see a printed copy of my itinerary or a hotel clerk needs a copy of my confirmation, I just open up the iPad and show it to them. ((Seriously — they love it!))
  • Bento. I am also using some custom-designed Bento templates to organize and collect hotel and expense information on this trip (another upcoming post) — and the iPad app makes updating my data incredibly easy.

The bottom line is this — If you’re a long-term traveler who works with computer code, images, or large amounts of text — I think you’re going to be packing a laptop for the near future. But it’s safe to say that, in the near future, your bag is going to be a whole lot lighter.

And if you’re a person whose needs are a little less demanding, I think that day may have already arrived.

5 Responses to “The iPad for Travelers: Can You Really Leave Your Laptop at Home?”

  1. Joe June 15, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    Very useful and informative post. The most important sentence is that “every person has different needs” when it comes to travel and mobility, connectivity etc. Personally I spent a recent week on vacation, for the first time in more years than I can remember without my MacBook, only relying on the iPad. The reason it worked was that, unlike you, I didn’t have to perform any tasks I could only do on a laptop. It works extremely well for more leisure oriented tasks and less for strictly business ones. It is really a third screen and I have noticed I use the iPhone less but not the laptop. In summary, to each his/her own and enjoy the iPad for what it does great like listening to music, watch videos/movies, play games and many more things, but certainly not writing the great American novel or edit complex spreadsheets and such.

  2. Alex June 18, 2010 at 3:34 am #

    People still use Flash?

    I’ve had adblockers and Flash blockers in place for a few years now, and apart from feeding my Bejewelled Blitz addiction, haven’t missed Flash at all.

    For what it’s worth, I’m planning on pretty much the same kit as you’ve put together – I’m heading off to Europe for 6 weeks next year, and I’m already using Evernote to start collecting the various bits of “paperwork” that are going to make our trip a little easier to keep on track.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your notes about using Evernote!

  3. Mike June 30, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    If I could make a suggestion, it would be to try LogMeIn Ignition on your iPad. I travel a lot, and was hoping to use my iPad for almost every computing task under the sun. I’ve had it for a month, and recognized a few situations where I needed a computer. I recently deployed LogMeIn Pro2 to provide tech support to my extended family, and downloaded LogMeIn Ignition on a whim. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I could get done from my iPad (and from my iPhone) when combined with Dropbox and Evernote.

    • Justin June 30, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

      I agree completely — LogMeIn is *fantastic* — especially for the iPad!

      Part of my work is doing technical consulting — and I’ve been using LMI to help my clients while I travel… and, you know, it’s also nice to be able to make a little money to help finance the trip! 😉

      I couldn’t tell from your comment if this was the way you use it, but often times I have a server or a spare computer turned on at home which I connect to via LogMeIn. By being able to use it as a virtualized desktop as well as for remote support, it really justifies the price of the app. (Something I hope to cover in an upcoming “Apps for Travelers” series).


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